Reflection on the First Precept

One of our sangha members is doing the Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Care program.  As part of her studies, she does monthly reflection papers on the five precepts. The following is a beautiful and thoughtful reflection that she wrote on the first precept.

In the Triratna Buddhist tradition, which I joined in 2008, we recite the first precept as follows:

I undertake the training principle of not harming living beings, [Negative form]
With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body. [Positive Form]

When I first heard the five precepts, this one felt like a ‘no brainer’.  I had been a vegetarian for years and remember secretly patting myself on the back and thinking “1 down, 4 to go”.

Now, 7 years on, I no longer have the view that I’ve ‘attained’ this precept in any real way.

I feel like the first precept is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule, in that it ultimately covers all the other precepts.

    One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. [Negative Form]
One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. [Positive Form]

If I follow the golden rule, and don’t harm myself or others, aren’t I really following all the other precepts? Non-Killing/Non-Harming seems to incorporate not stealing, right speech, right sexual conduct, not taking intoxicants.  Concerned with my actions as an individual and wanting to practice the precepts, I simply try to take care in my everyday life.

In reading chapter Six of Reb Anderson’s Being Upright, The Teaching of the Two Truths, I was interested to learn about the conventional truth aspect and ultimate truth aspect of the Bodhisattva precepts.  Anderson points out, when we can move beyond the conventional, we can practice the precepts not as something external we impose on ourselves and create anxiety around, but as natural expressions of our understanding of life.

Reflecting on these two aspects, it seems that I focus mainly on the foundational conventional truth level and haven’t really explored or moved towards the “ultimate truth” aspect as yet.

I reflect on how I kill in the area of consumption.  The skincare and cosmetics I currently use are not cruelty-free.  There are other items in our home that are not environment- or animal-friendly. I’ve simply been purchasing the cheapest or most convenient brands, without consideration of impact. I am starting to make changes in this area now.  Clothing is another area I have considered, but haven’t made any changes as yet.  I buy from big box stores where the labels say “Made in China/India/Vietnam”.  I don’t know the conditions the workers have, or if they are paid fairly. Price is my main driver.  The savings I enjoy may actually be paid by other people across the planet.  People whose birth just happened to be less fortunate than mine.  Does this give me the right to exploit them?  Am I not killing their health, their life expectancy, their happiness by feeding my desire for cheap clothing?  And perhaps is this too simple a view? What if that sweatshop work is actually a better choice than the alternative?  Low pay and exploitative conditions vs. no pay and starvation?  What is the ‘right’ thing here?

 “A bodhisattva sometimes finds it necessary to break a precept in the conventional sense in order to fulfill the compassionate purpose of his or her life”.

This is another idea in Anderson’s book that stood out to me as I have some guilt and anxiety around my daily medications.  They are tested on animals.  I sometimes agonize over this. I see that I am not separate from any other being. We are all suffering together and there is no formula for ‘doing the right thing’ I can follow here.  I take these medicines to keep myself disease free and healthy so that I may work and contribute my time and resources to causes that help people and animals.  I’m not a bodhisattva, but I take comfort knowing that as humans, there are times we may choose to break a precept because we believe there is a ‘greater good’ to be attained.

Another area of killing I’ve reflected on this month is around virtual relationships.  Since moving to NYC, I use Facebook to stay in contact with friends and family.  I notice that since these relationships have transferred from the physical realm to the mental realm, my anxiety and tendency towards negative thoughts has increased.   I miss these people, and it seems like they’ve carried on with life just fine without me.  Who knew that they didn’t need me to live full and happy lives?!  My poor ego is wounded.  Instead of just reaching out, being vulnerable and saying “I miss you guys, let’s make time to talk”, I indulge in provocative posts and comments designed to solicit attention, even negative attention.  This pattern of seeking attention and validation, even if negative, is an old one rooted in childhood.  In Getting Unstuck, Pema Chodron speaks of shenpa, the “hook” or “urge” to indulge in unskillful habits.  I feel myself turning towards this shenpa, going to poison for comfort.  Am I not killing these relationships by engaging in behaviour that is essentially unkind, both to myself and to them?

When I moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I met two homeless men in my neighbourhood, and there are rich lessons for me in these relationships.  In my eagerness to “help them”, I have been challenged to reflect on what “helping them” really means.  For example, I agreed to call the hospital for some info for AR.  When I got it, I was so eager to tell him that I walked up to him sitting in his wheelchair and just blurted it out.  I failed to notice that he had, in fact, been asleep.  Instead of the grateful reception I was anticipating, he berated me for waking him up. I went through such a range of emotions. I walked away feeling guilty and embarrassed at my lack of mindfulness. Great lesson! Just because AR lives on the streets, doesn’t mean he deserves less common courtesy.  It may not be convenient for me to come back another time, but shouldn’t I have noticed he was sleeping and thought maybe he needs sleep right now more than the info I’m so keen to give him?  I need to look, notice and be mindful when approaching someone. Gauge whether they are ready to receive me.  And if I make a mistake, be humble, apologize and keep on trying.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Five Precepts as Gemstones

precept stones

My shrine at home is pretty standard for the most part. There’s a Buddha statue, with right hand raised and facing outward in the protection mudra. There’s also a bowl cradled in the left hand, which I think is characteristic of the Medicine Buddha, signifying healing. There are some candles and a bowl where I burn stick incense. The one piece of (I think) original flair is my “precept stone” bowl, although to be honest I have no idea if this was an innovation, or something I had seen somewhere and forgot about.

We’ve talked about the Five Precepts before, and anyone familiar with Buddhism knows them by heart and strives to live by them. They’re not commandments, but voluntary choices, a code of ethical conduct closely tied to the Right Action component of the Eightfold Path. There are a lot of English translations of the original, but they all go something like this:

  • I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life.
  • I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not given.
  • I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake to abstain from intoxicants, which cloud the mind.

At Triratna we also add a positive counterpart to each of the traditional precepts. If the negative formulations listed above remind us of unskillful behavior that we want to avoid, the positive formulations remind us of skillful behavior that we want to cultivate.

  • With deeds of loving-kindness, I purify my body.
  • With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
  • With stillness, simplicity, and contentment, I purify my body.
  • With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
  • With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

A lot can be said about each precept, and some of them mean different things to different people. The first precept, for example, clearly suggests that we not go around killing people, but many Buddhists also extend that to animals, and so they are vegetarians or vegans. The one about sexual misconduct shouldn’t be confused with some sort of moralistic “sex is sinful” commandment; instead it means that sexual behavior should not be used to harm anyone, for example by interfering in a couple’s committed relationship or entering into sexual relationships that aren’t equal and consensual. The fifth precept, for some, means total abstinence from alcohol, but for others it means simply stopping after a glass or two of wine, or at least striving to remain mindful – in control, moderate – when drinking. There’s a great quote by Triratna’s founder, Sangharakshita, in his book Vision and Transformation, about the fifth precept:

“If you can drink without impairing your mindfulness (it might be said), then drink; but if you can’t, then don’t. However, one must be quite honest with oneself, and not pretend that one is mindful when one is merely merry.”

Back to my gemstones, part of my practice is, when I sit to meditate, to take each stone out of the bowl, hold it and look at its color, feel its weight, and recite the negative formulation of the precept. I’ve forgotten the names of some of the gemstones I chose, but they made sense as visual representations of each precept to me. The first precept is a lustrous silver, signifying that life is precious and not to be taken. The second precept is green, probably jade, because at least in the English language green is associated with envy, something that might lead to taking the not-given. The third precept is rose quartz, I think. Red is the color of passion, and the softened, gentle color of the rose quartz is a softer, gentler form of sexual energy. The fourth precept is the black stone, onyx I believe, and it reminds me that unskillful speech is dark and negative. The fifth precept is blue – no idea what kind of gem – and blue is the color of calm water or a clear sky, so a mindful, responsible, disciplined state. As I say each precept aloud, I place its stone in front of me. If I feel that I’m in a relatively safe place in regard to each particular precept, I put it to the left. If I’m in a state where I might risk unskillful behavior related to a particular precept, I put it on the right, as a reminder to be careful.

After I’ve finished my meditation, I gather up each stone, and recite the positive formulation, again trying to focus on the color and weight. Then I place it back in its bowl. Sometimes, if I think I really need the reminder, I put the stone in my pocket and keep it there for the day. I’ve gone to more than one party with the blue stone!

I don’t think this is standard practice in Buddhism, but it’s got meaning for me. Of course the particular ritual is unimportant, as long as it helps us act skillfully, and remain mindful.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Five Precepts

handleaf[Image Source] If you’re not familiar with Buddhism, you may never have heard of the Five Precepts. They’re the ethical base of Buddhist practice, a sort of code that practicing Buddhists live by. They’re very closely tied to the Right Action spoke of the Eightfold Path, which, along with Right Livelihood and Right Speech, is part of the Ethical Conduct path of Buddhism. The Five Precepts are, in a word, central to Buddhist thought and practice.

In the West we’re quite used to commandments, and it’s easy to confuse the Five Precepts with some sort of list of commandments. They’re not. Nowhere in the precepts will you see a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not.” Instead, they’re formulated as choices, as voluntary undertakings, as decisions made by the individual because they make sense to the individual through practice and reflection, not because some cosmic (and potentially vengeful) being commanded them. Buddhists chant or recite them as reminders, as a kind of affirmation of the choice to practice.

The precepts have both negative and positive formulations, and in both, you can see how the practicing Buddhist enters into a kind of equal partnership with them. Take a look at the negative formulations first.

1. I undertake to abstain from taking or harming life.
2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not freely given.
3. I undertake to abstain from causing harm through sexuality.

4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants that dull the mind.

Notice that they all begin with “I undertake to abstain from…” Not “I vow not to…” or even “I will not...” For many Buddhists, in intention and in actual behavior, they do amount to vows, but they come from a humbler place, a place that recognizes that we don’t always get it right, even with the best of intentions. That doesn’t imply a lax attitude toward the precepts, but rather a compassionate attitude to ourselves.

We’ll look more closely at each of the precepts in later posts, but here’s a quick summary of how they’re usually understood:

1. The first precept is related to the practice of avihimsā, which is nonviolence, harmlessness, the absence of cruelty. For many Buddhists, but not all, this means vegetarianism, or even veganism. The central aim is to abstain from causing suffering to other sentient beings, human and non-human alike.

2. The second precept is obviously about not stealing, but it’s also a little more subtle. It’s about not manipulating people into giving, doing or saying things that they don’t give, do or say freely and voluntarily.

3. The third precept does not take the kind of moralistic attitude toward sex that we often see in the West. There’s no sense that sex itself is bad or sinful, but rather that since it’s such a basic human urge, it’s very susceptible to being misused, to being the source of harm. Obviously this covers issues like rape or sexual abuse, but it also covers sex that causes harm or pain to another married or partnered couple, or compulsive sex that causes harm to ourselves.

4. The fourth precept is about telling the truth, but not just in the sense of not lying. Buddhists are very concerned with attaining a vision of reality as it really is, and speech is one way that we can (further) distort reality for one another, not just through lying, but also through exaggerating, gossiping, and speaking ill of people.

5. The fifth precept is about drinking and taking drugs. Again, it’s not so much that these things are sinful in themselves, but rather that they interfere with mindfulness, the truthful and direct experience of the here-and-now. Some people take the fifth precept as a call to complete abstention, while others (usually the ones with more self-control!) take it as a reminder to stop after one or two.

We’ll end with the positive formulations of the five precepts, the flip side of the same coin in each case.

1. With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.
2. With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
3. With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
4. With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
5. With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

If the negative formulations are the stick, at least of a sort, the positive formulations are the carrot. They are the benefits that one may gain, “purified” body, speech, and mind that are not as vulnerable to the urges, the whims, the moods, the dissatisfaction, and the general uncertainty – the suffering – that we live with.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail